Comment: The travel industry is wrong to embrace net zero

The pursuit of net zero when technology isn’t ready at scale is counterproductive, argues Ken Scott

I consider myself a sensible and practical environmentalist. However, the travel industry’s new commitment to net zero is premature at best.

The following travel institutions have pledged to support net zero by 2050: the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Iata, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Air Transport Action Group, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, cruise line association Clia, the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance and others.

I believe it’s a massive mistake for five reasons:

First, proposed frequent flyer levies, carbon emission taxes, compulsory carbon offsetting, more expensive biofuels and the mandated introduction of new technologies such as electric vehicles mean tourism will become more expensive.

This will hurt long-haul travel especially, which will slow tourism’s role in global poverty alleviation.

Travel and tourism creates 10.4% of global GDP, according to the WTTC. In dozens of countries, such as Morocco, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Greece, Iceland, the Seychelles and Maldives, the GDP contribution ranges from 18% (Morocco) to 75% (Maldives). Tourism turbocharges poor economies.

Second, net zero commits the travel industry to take on a lot of extra and unnecessary costs that will only be passed on to travellers, making travel increasingly the preserve of the rich.

Third, it will expose the travel industry to greater levels of government interference through taxes, subsidies, levies, restrictions and interventions – in short, a lot of time-consuming, expensive red tape.

Fourth, flight shaming positions travel as an indulgence rather than a vital component of the global economy.

Fifth, the travel industry is a relatively smaller player in the battle to reduce global CO2 emissions. That battle will mostly be won or lost depending on the national energy policy decisions of coal-dependent China, India, Brazil and other lesser-developed countries with large and relatively poor populations.

This de facto war against fossil fuel-based travel, especially aviation, is wrong, and at the very least premature because new green technology, support infrastructure and new fuel types, such as sustainable aviation biofuels, aren’t up to the job of replacing fossil fuels yet.

Timing is the point. The technology doesn’t exist. It may be years away. It may be decades away. We simply don’t know.

Indeed, on October 4 when Willie Walsh, director general of Iata, announced the airline industry’s commitment to net zero by 2050, he did so with a desperate plea for governments to intervene.

“Governments must be active partners in achieving net zero by 2050,” he said. “The costs and investment risks are too high otherwise.”

Walsh even hoped for “new propulsion systems, whether that is hydrogen-powered aircraft or some other system that we haven’t even dreamed of yet”.

Hope is a desperate strategy. We have to live in the real world.

So, whether we live in a developed or developing economy, we should all insist that the travel industry doesn’t chuck in the towel on fossil fuels. It would be a huge and unnecessary act of self-harm for everyone.

In the meantime, governments and green activists should instead commit to supporting the international travel industry not crimping it.

In an age of increasing mental health challenges, a good holiday can be a perfect antidote to a range of ills. Memories of my one-week family holiday in summer 2019 to Greece, and the prospect of doing it again one day, helped sustain me through the long, dark days of Covid restrictions and the deferment of normal life.

Travel must not be turned into a guilty elitist indulgence available only to the rich. That is the sad and very expensive path that the WTTC, Iata, UNWTO and others have unwittingly put us on.

Let’s wake up and travel a better road.

Ken Scott is managing director of ScottAsia Communications

Comment:Travel’s route to net zero

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